No Smooth Path to Good Design

The path to good design is bumpy, as we will demonstrate with four teapots. (Yes, teapots. Teapots are a staple of computer science and philosophy.)

The path to good design matters, because if you are trying to build a design capability, the journey will be smoother if you understand that the path is bumpy.

Leaders who appreciate the bumpy path can facilitate far greater value creation and support a more engaged group of workers.

What is design?

Design is an activity, but also a result: the specification for a product (service), which determines how it is made or delivered.

Performance is a measure of how a product actually functions, for a given task in a given context. Performance in the broadest sense includes emotional responses, static and dynamic physical characteristics, service characteristics, etc. For simplicity, let’s measure performance in monetary terms; eg. lifetime economic value.

Design is important as an activity and a result, because it is the prime determinant of performance that is within your control.

The smooth path

Teapot by Norman
Teapot by Norman[1]
Consider the distinctive teapot from the cover of Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, where the handle – instead of opposing – is aligned with the spout.

We know a thing or two about teapots, so we assume this design has very poor performance!

However, we also assume that a traditional design with handle opposed to the spout produces the best performance.

We can plot our smooth model of how performance varies as a function of the angle between spout and handle.

Performance of teapot design variants
Performance of teapot design variants

And it’s pretty clear how to find the best design. The more opposing the handle and spout, the better the performance, the more value created, and hence the better the design.

The first bump in the path

Yokode Kyusu
Yokode Kyusu [1]
However, this model is broken. We can’t interpolate smoothly (linearly) between design points, as demonstrated by the Japanese yokode kyusu, which features a handle at right angles to its spout, to extract every last drop of tea.

With this new insight, and a further assumption that handles in between the points we’ve plotted (eg, 45 degrees) are much worse due to awkward twisting motions when pouring, we can draw a new model, which is already much less smooth.

Teapot performance with new information
Teapot performance with new information

What’s interesting about this landscape is that most design variants perform pretty poorly, and you must be close to a good design to find it. If you didn’t have the insight into teapot performance that we have assumed – if you had only tested performance at the awkward angles, and you had assumed smooth behaviour in between – you would likely miss the best designs and leave significant value on the table. (Note that the scale of this diagram should be greatly exaggerated to demonstrate the true size of value creation opportunities.)

Value created by discovery
Value created by exploration

So, this is the first lesson of the bumpy path to good design. We need to explore the performance of multiple design variants, and understand that small changes in design can have enormous impacts on performance, to be confident we are approaching our potential to create value.

Teapot with handle on top
Teapot with handle on top [3]
So far, we have only explored the impact of one design variable, but for any product we have effectively infinitely many design variables (if we can just conceive them). For instance, the handle of a teapot could also be on top, but we could also consider the shape, material, fixtures, etc. Then we could move beyond the handle to the design of the rest of the teapot!

Now consider the design and delivery of digital products and services. Constraints do exist, but infinite design variants still exist within those constraints. Further, like the rolled up dimensions of string theory, there are extra dimensions of design that are easy to miss, but once discovered can be expanded and explored to create ever more value.

The first lesson

How do leaders get this wrong? By failing to encourage the exploration of a sufficient number of design variants, and by failing to encourage the exploration of minor changes that have outsize impact.

As a leader, you must be prepared to carve out time and space, embrace uncertainty and ambiguity, and bring creativity, compassion and patience to the exploration process. As important as this is to creating value, it is also key to maintaining the engagement of teams involved in or interacting with design.

I’m often told that exploration feels inefficient. Or, rather, felt inefficient. The distinction is importation. Hindsight bias distorts the reality that before starting an exploration into a sufficiently bumpy landscape, we simply cannot know what we will find. So how do we measure efficiency of exploration? Certainly not by how quickly we arrive at a design, or by how many designs are discarded. Should we even measure efficiency of exploration? That is a better question. We should focus on net value creation, and do enough exploration to mitigate the risk that we are leaving significant value on the table.

This design sensibility, however, may not be apparent to the whole team. Designers will be frustrated being managed to a smooth path, while others who perceive the challenge to be simple may become frustrated when the bumpiness is allowed to surface. The team’s various activities may have different cadences that sometimes align, and sometimes don’t. This can create friction and dissatisfaction in teams. Some functional conflict is healthy in this regard, but as a leader, you must support and enable a team to focus on what it takes to create value.

The second bump in the path

I have used word “assume” liberally and deliberately above. I have assumed a large number of things about the tasks that users of the teapots are seeking to achieve, and the broader contexts of use. I have further assumed that my readers share a traditional western notion of teapots and their use. I have done this to keep simple – I hope – the explanation of the first bump.

But “assume” is at the root of the second bump. During product development, we can’t assume performance, we must test designs with users engaged a task in a context. We may take shortcuts by prototyping, simulating, etc, but we must test as objectively as possible, for a meaningful prediction of a product’s performance, and potential to create value.

In a bumpy design landscape, poor predictions of actual performance carry significant opportunity cost.

Value created by testing
Value created by testing

(Note also that during the development of a typical digital product/service, we are typically iteratively discovering the task and the context in parallel.)

We assumed, with our teapots above, that a spout aligned with the handle would lead to poor performance, but we didn’t test it (with a minor tweak in a hidden dimension). If we’d tested this traditional oriental design (as UX Designer Mike Eng did), we would have discovered that, for the task of serving oneself, in a solitary context, the aligned handle actually produces superior performance.

Aligned handle teapot
Aligned handle teapot [4]
I was surprised to find this teapot design existed when I stumbled upon the post from above. I suspect this teapot design has a specific name or an interesting story behind it, but I haven’t been able to track it down. However, it serves as an excellent demonstration that the best design paths are bumpy.

The second lesson

The second lesson is that assumptions about performance, task and context hide the inherent bumpiness in design. As a leader, you must recognise and challenge assumptions, encourage the testing of designs under the correct conditions, and appreciate that our understanding of task and context may evolve with testing.

There are many resources that discuss lightweight and effective approaches to UX research and testing; you could do worse than to start here.

Conclusion

We have discussed two major value creation activities in design:

  • Exploration and consequent discovery of performant designs
  • Testing and consequent selection of more performant designs

But these activities are overlooked or de-prioritised with a smooth mindset. While there is uncertainty, ambiguity and friction along the path, and sometimes progress is difficult to discern, as a leader, you must embrace the bumps because – if you are in the business of creating value – there is no smooth path to good design.

Image credits
  1. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Design-Everyday-Things-Donald-Norman/dp/0262640376
  2. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JapaneseTeapot.jpg
  3. http://www.wilkinpottery.com/product/teapot-top-handle/
  4. Ebay listing from seller http://www.ebay.com/usr/mitch8670

Jetty to Jetty app

I released an app 🙂 – for iOS and Android.

It’s a self-guided audio tour of historic sites in Broome, Western Australia, including beautiful stories told by locals. Nyamba Buru Yawuru developed the concept, curated the media, engaged local stakeholders, and were product owners for the app.

Jetty to Jetty screenshots
Jetty to Jetty screenshots

This work was exciting for its value to the Broome and Yawuru community, but also because it was an opportunity to innovate under the constraint of building the simplest thing possible. The simplest thing possible was in stark contrast to the technical whizbangery (though lean delivery) of my previous app project – Fireballs in the Sky.

I had fun working on the interaction and visual design challenges under the constraints, and I think the key successes were:

  • Simplifying presentation of the real-world and in-app navigation as a hand-rolled map (drawn in Inkscape), showing all the sites, that scrolls in a single direction.
  • Hiding everything unnecessary during playback of stories, to allow the user to focus on the place and the story.
  • Playback control behaviour across sites and the main map.
  • Not succumbing to the temptation to add geo-location, background audio, or anything else that could have added to the complexity!

My colleague Nathan Jones laid the technical foundations – Phonegap/Cordova wrapping a static site built by Middleman and using CoffeeScript, knockout.js, HAML, Sass and HTML5/Cordova plugin for media. He later went on to extend and open-source (as Jila) this framework for the Yawuru Ngan-ga language app. Most of the development work by Nathan and me was done in early 2014.

While intended to be used in Broome (and yet another reason to visit Broome), the app and its beautiful stories can be enjoyed anywhere.

Health Hack Perth 2015

HealthHack is a three-day event bringing medical researchers and health practitioners together with software creators to prototype a new generation of health products.

Business News Western Australia covered the Perth 2015 event in: HealthHack – ailments, remedies in equal doses.

I helped organise this event with assistance from sponsors ThoughtWorks and Curtin University (among numerous other generous sponsors). It was a great event, with important and challenging problems presented, innovative solution concepts delivered, and new relationships formed between individuals and organisations in health and technology.

Health Hack summary
Health Hack summary

Please refer to the report and the catalogue of products for detailed information on this event, and resources for hackathons in general. Health Hack is an Open Knowledge Foundation Australia event, so is predicated on sharing open source deliverables.

Some Highlights and Lessons Learned

We focussed on curated problems for this event, approaching a large number of potential “problem owners” with a checklist to recruit those with the most appropriate challenges for the weekend hackathon format. We then worked with the problem owners to shape their challenges and pitches for the “ideas market”. This was a very substantial effort (primarily by the fabulous Diana Adorno) in the lead-up to the weekend, but the well-formed problems were key to the success of the hack.

Health Hack pitch posters
Health Hack pitch posters

We attracted a diverse set of participants, with skills ranging from design, to software development, to data science, and these individuals organised themselves into teams around the problems most suited to their collective skill set. As organisers, we made only one substitution to balance teams.

We started with fewer participants than expected, because the drop-off rate from registrations was substantially higher (50%) than previous years at other sites (30%). However, attrition over the weekend was virtually zero, as the participants were uniformly enthusiastic and energised by their challenges.

The ideas market built great energy around the challenges and the potential for the weekend. We posted the challenges around the room prior to the event. Then the problems owners took turns to pitch in just 2 minutes each from their challenge posters. The pitches were clear and concise, and the cumulative effect was really energising. When the pitches were done, participants had time to walk the room, seek more information from problem owners, and organise their own teams.

Coaching and regular check-ins on team progress helped keep the teams focussed on solving key problems and having a demonstrable product at the end of the weekend. No team failed to showcase. However, we had feedback that access to more coaching would have been valuable.

Health Hack showcase
Health Hack showcase

The venue at Curtin University Chemistry Precinct was ideal, with team tables, breakout spaces and bean bags, and surrounded by gardens. However, it was the only Health Hack venue not in the CBD of the host city, and this may have presented transport challenges (though we didn’t collect any data on this). The plan at the time was to rotate the venue through various supporting institutions in future years.

Food trucks and coffee vans were a great way to service participants! Although it required some coordination ahead of the event, and may not be possible in CBD sites, it was very easy on the weekend, and lots of fun.

For more, see the full report.

Your Software is a Nightclub

Why a nightclub? Well, it’s a better model than a home loan. I’m talking here about technical debt, the concept that describes how retarding complexity (cost) builds up in software development and other activities, and how to manage this cost. A home loan is misleading because product development cost doesn’t spiral out of control due to missed interest payments over time. Costs blow out due to previously deferred or unanticipated socialisation costs being realised with a given change.

So what are socialisation costs? They are the costs incurred when you introduce a new element to an existing group: a new person to a nightclub, or a new feature into a product. Note that we can consider socialisation at multiple levels of the product – UX design, information architecture, etc – not just source code.

Why is socialisation so costly? Because in general you have to socialise each new element with all existing elements, and so you can expect each new element you add to cost more than the last. If you keep adding elements, and even if each pair socialises very cheaply, eventually socialisation cost dominates marginal cost and total cost.

What is the implication of poor socialisation? In a nightclub, this may be a fight, and consequent loss of business. In software, this may be delayed releases or operational issues or poor user experience, and consequent lack of business. If you build airplanes, it could cost billions of dollars.

What does this mean for software delivery, or brand management, or product management, or organisational change, or hiring people, or nightclub management, or any activity where there is continued pressure to add new elements, but accelerating cost of socialisation?

Well, consider that production (of stuff) achieves efficiencies of scale by shifting variable cost to fixed for a certain volume. But software delivery is not production, it is design, and continuous re-design in response to change in our understanding of business outcomes.

Change can be scaled by shifting socialisation costs to variable; we take a variable cost hit with each new element to reduce the likelihood we will pay a high price to socialise future elements. Then we can change and change again in a sustainable manner. We can also segment elements to ensure pairwise cost is zero between segments (architecture). But, ideally, we continue to jettison elements that aren’t adding sufficient value – this is the surest way minimise marginal socialisation cost and preserve business agility. We can deliver a continuous MVP.

So what does this add to the technical debt discussion? All models are wrong; some are useful. Technical debt is definitely useful, and reaches some of the same management conclusions as above.

For me, the nightclub model is a better holistic model for product management, not just for coding. It is more dynamic and reflective of a messy reality. Further, with an economic model of marginal cost, we can assess whether the economics of marginal value stack up. Who do we want in out nightclub? How do we ensure the mix is good for business? Who needs to leave?

What do you think?

Postscript: The Economic Model

We write total cost (C) as the sum of fixed costs (f), constant variable cost per-unit (v) and a factor representing socialisation cost per pair (s):

\[ C = f + vN + sN^2\]

Then marginal cost (M) may be written as:

\[ M = v + 2sN \]

Socialisation Cost
Socialisation cost against fixed and variable costs

Note: This post was originally published August 2014, and rebooted April 2015

Iterative vs Incremental Flashcard

Sometimes, the difference between incremental and iterative (software) product development is subtle. Often it is crucial to unlocking early value or quickly eliminating risk – an iterative approach will do this for you, while incremental will not.

Incremental vs Iterative
Incremental vs Iterative

Let’s review the distinction. Incremental means building something piece by piece, like creating a picture by finishing a jigsaw puzzle. This is great for visibility of progress, especially if you make the pieces very small. However, the inherent risk is that an incremental build is not done until the last piece is in place. Splitting something into incremental pieces implies the finished whole is understood (by the jigsaw designer, at least). If something changes during the build, like a bump to the table,  all of your work to date is at risk. Future work – to finish the whole – is also at risk of delivering less than optimal value, if our understanding of value changes during an incremental build. Much development work done under an agile banner is in fact incremental, and therefore more like a mini-waterfall approach than an essentially agile approach.

Iterative, on the other hand, means building something through successive refinements, starting from the crudest implementation that will do the job, and at each stage refining in such a way that you maintain a coherent whole. You might think of this like playing Pictionary. When you are asked to draw the Mona Lisa, you start with (perhaps) a rectangle with a circle inside. If your partner guesses at this point, great! If not, you might add the smile, the hair, the eyes. Hopefully, your partner has guessed by now.  If not, embellish the frame, add the landscape, draw da Vinci painting it, show it hanging in the Louvre, etc. Your risk exposure (that time will expire before your partner guesses) is far lower with an iterative approach. With each iteration, you have captured some value. If your understanding of value changes (eg, your partner shouts something unhelpful like “stockade”), you still retain your captured value, and you can also adjust your future activities to accommodate your new understanding.

I think I capture all of this in the diagram above. If you’re having trouble articulating the difference between incremental and iterative (because both show similar signs of progress at times), or you’re concerned about the risk profile of your delivery, refer to this handy pocket guide.

Leave Product Development to the Dummies

This is the talk I gave at Agile Australia 2013 about the role of simulation in product development. Check out a PDF of the slides with brief notes.

Description

"Dummies" talk at Agile Australia

Stop testing on humans! Auto manufacturers have greatly reduced the harm once caused by inadvertently crash-testing production cars with real people. Now, simulation ensures every new car endures thousands of virtual crashes before even a dummy sets foot inside. Can we do the same for software product delivery?

Simulation can deliver faster feedback than real-world trials, for less cost. Simulation supports agility, improves quality and shortens development cycles. Designers and manufacturers of physical products found this out a long time ago. By contrast, in Agile software development, we aim to ship small increments of real software to real people and use their feedback to guide product development. But what if that’s not possible? (And can we still benefit from simulation even when it is?)

The goal of trials remains the same: get a good product to market as quickly as possible (or pivot or kill a bad product as quickly as possible). However, if you have to wait for access to human subjects or real software, or if it’s too costly to scale to the breadth and depth of real-world trials required to optimise design and minimise risk, consider simulation.

Learn why simulation was chosen for the design of call centre services (and compare this with crash testing cars), how a simulator was developed, and what benefits the approach brought. You’ll leave equipped to decide whether simulation is appropriate for your next innovation project, and with some resources to get you started.

Discover:

  • How and when to use simulation to improve agility
  • The anatomy of a simulator
  • A lean, risk-based approach to developing and validating a simulator
  • Techniques for effectively visualising and communicating simulations
  • Implementing simulated designs in the real world